Dealing with sleep deprivation as a new mum

I read a statistic the other day that new mothers lose an average of 720 hours of sleep in the first year of motherhood. The fact that my first thought was ‘mm, is that all?’ should tell you a bit about that state of my sleep at this time in my life. If my sleep were a person it would look like Pete Doherty on a bad day circa 2010.

Seriously though, 720 hours is a lot.  
But as with all stats it’s probably also not that accurate. Some women will be losing less, some women a lot more. Again, I don’t need to tell you which group I belong in. (NB: I am NOT seeking any practical advice on this issue so please don’t bother).
In response to my sorry state of sleep, I’m tempted to say - in the habitual and feigned way that we all seem to communicate about the hard stuff - ‘it’s fine’. But the fact is that we use that word far too much and it’s not really fine at all. Or at least, if it is, then IT’S FINE!!! OKAY!

Honestly, it sucks. The only sleep training that has been done in this household is the one where mum learns to function on a lot less sleep that she would have thought possible. Plus, a lot more interrupted. Listen - I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, my own self pity will quite suffice for the both of us.

I realise there are ways of me getting more sleep, but I’ve made certain decisions about how I want to mother my child, what I believe is best for her wellbeing and mine at this point in time, and so this is just one of those things; having to deal with the reality of sleep loss.

Although I do have the odd ‘woe is me’ day, generally, I am dealing with it remarkably well and self-pity is replaced by ‘I’m-too-busy-and-madly-in-love-to-care’. Love is the most energising thing and so even when I feel tired, when Juno smiles her cheeky smile at me I am just buzzing with a full fluffy heart. Very often I am surprised at just how good I do feel on a day when I wake being able to remember far more of the night than I would like to admit.

I would love to write a blog post about how to actually get more sleep. But aside from the ‘nap when baby naps’ thing, I’m not the best person to be giving this advice. Which is a bit like saying the Pope isn’t the best person to go to a rave with. What I have found is that when you talk about sleep as a new mother, it is so highly emotive. It is met with a description of all the things this or that mother has done to get better sleep with the implicit/explicit expectation that it, too, will work for your baby and you. I have also been guilty of this, although my experience of any kind of intervention is rather minimal. These nuggets of sleep advice are so well intentioned but sometimes really unhelpful. Sometimes as the mother of baby who isn’t the best sleeper, you have tried the things and they didn’t work. Other times (a little more common, I think), you have heard about the things that ‘always work!’ but you are unwilling to do them. Perhaps never. Or perhaps, at least for now. Either way, the more helpful advice in the moment is not how to get baby to sleep through the night, but rather how you can help and support yourself when sleep is lacking.

(There is also a lot I could say about the expectation that our Western society has about babies learning to sleep through the night and our cultural approach to parenting which seems centered around ‘experts’ teaching parents how to make the baby accomodate to the adults’ need rather than the other way around, but I’ll leave that for now because it’s something I feel really strongly about and if I do write about it then it certainly deserves it’s own piece).

Because I now consider myself somewhat of a (unwilling) pro on coping with lost sleep, I thought I’d just share some practical things that have really helped to boost my energy / mood when I’m feeling like Mr Bean on that Long drive to Cannes Film Festival. I haven’t resorted to matchsticks yet so I can add that to my gratitude journal.  

So here is what works for me. Some of the below is scientifically proven to help and others are just my two cents.

  1. Stay well hydrated. Even mild dehydration decreases our ability to think properly and focus. It also decreases our ability to sense our internal subjective state; meaning we are less aware of how we are feeling and therefore less good at taking care of ourselves. Water is your friend. Herbal tea counts too.

  2. Eat well and regularly but avoid overeating. It’s tempting to pig out when you’re really tired but a very full belly demands a lot of energy from the body to digest. Energy that will not be going to your frontal cortex. Plus hormones released from being over-full can make you feel even more tired. Food coma is a not your friend.

  3. Move your ass. Movement is 100% a good idea and it’s proven to provide a boost to our energy levels, mood and brain function. Being a yoga teacher this is a pretty easy one for me to tick off the list and it is something I ascribe so much of my postnatal recovery to. Even just 5 minutes is good. Don’t forget that a brisk walk with baby in carrier/pram is totally legitimate, too.

  4. Making sure I look better than I feel. I make an extra effort to look nice. Clothes. Make up. It helps. Fake it till you make it kind of vibes. Or maybe just polishing a turd.

  5. Keeping things simple. I don’t make too many plans. (having to be somewhere at a particular time is hard enough when you have a baby anyways and just extra stresses me out when I’m flagging). Also, prioritise your to-do-list so that only the most important things get done.

  6. Having said that, do try to get out of the house - at least for a walk or a drink with a friend. It also means you will have get out your PJs and actually put some clothes on, which is a good chance to practice No 4.

  7. Go easy on the coffee. It’s so tempting to use coffee to boost energy but I’ve found it to be a very thin line between ‘I feel a little revived’ vs ‘I’m buzzing my tits off and anxious and I can’t stop sweating’.

  8. Remember to take some deep slow breaths during the day. When we are over tired our sympathetic nervous system kicks in to help us rise to the challenge, releasing cortisol and adrenaline to keep us ‘alert’ (or just awake). This is an adaptive and helpful things but it is taxing on our bodies and can lead to burnout. It can also lead to poor sleep / in ability to nap because we are wired and not in a state conductive to proper sleep. Deep slow breaths help to bring in some more parasympathetic activity and creates more space for relaxation and proper rest. It also helps to keep you calm because tiredness really lessens our ability to regulate our emotions.

  9. Supplements that I have found helpful are herbal adaptogens (ginseng, ashwaganda, bacopa, rhodiola) and relaxants (verbena, valerian, chamomile, passionflower, lime blossom, skullcap). Adaptogens help to boost stamina and reduce the negative effects of stress on our bodies and minds. They also support mood and hormone regulation, too. Relaxants do what they say on the tin, which is really valuable with sleep deprivation because they work on the parasympathetic nervous system to help counter the effects of excess stress hormones.* Breastfeeding also helps in this way too because of the oxytocin it releases...

  10. so does LOVE! Bonding with your baby and spending time playing, being cheeky and generally having fun will do wonders to help cope with sleep deprivation. It’s likely the evolutionary reason why women seem to have superpowers when they become mothers and are able to be tired but still kick ass (even if in a really sleepy, i’m-still-in-my-nighty kind of way). But really, getting all that oxytocin dancing through your veins has a big impact on mood and energy levels.

I hope some of the above might be been helpful.

Over and out.

With love,

One Tired but Badass Mother

P.S You’re amazing.